Reinforcing that the best things in life are free, a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that online freebie-exchange communities such as "Freecycle" and "Couchsurfing" foster greater team spirit among their members than do cash-for-goods websites.
The results, published earlier this month in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, may help explain why a growing number of recession-weary Americans are participating less in monetary-based consumerism in favor of "gift economies” built on freebies and community spirit.
"We found that being active in online gift-giving communities like Freecycle generates strong feelings of solidarity and identification, which in turn drive people to give more gifts in the system," said Robb Willer, assistant professor of sociology and psychology at UC Berkeley. "This dynamic may help explain why the membership of sites like Freecycle and Couchsurfing has taken off in recent years."
In a wide-ranging survey of more than 1,300 online consumers and recyclers, UC Berkeley and Stanford University researchers gauged the dynamics of transactions and levels of solidarity and group identification among two of the most popular online goods exchange networks: Freecycle and Craigslist.
Launched in 2003, Freecycle is a thriving, grassroots, web-based recycling network that boasts 9 million members in more than 70 countries. Craigslist, started in 1996, is a pioneering online free-classifieds system used predominantly to advertise goods or services for sale, and it claims to receive 50 million ads a month.
"Users of Freecycle make unilateral contributions to other individual users, but cannot make requests for payments or ask for any other form of reciprocation," the study notes. "In contrast, Craigslist users exchange resources with one another by engaging in direct transactions, the terms of which are explicitly shared and mutually agreed upon."
Researchers hypothesized that people who give and receive via a "generalized exchange system," (Freecycle) would feel greater solidarity and group identification than those using a "direct exchange system" (Craigslist). The results bear out their claims.
"What we found is that a site like Freecycle is uniquely good at generating pro-group sentiments like group identification and solidarity," said Willer, a co-author of the study. "The more people receive gifts through these systems, the more they come to identify as members of the group and view the group as cohesive and high in solidarity, more so than Craigslist members. These pro-group feelings in turn motivate members to give to the group."
Thus, the study points out, "If a critical mass of contributions can be harnessed, it may spark a sort of ’virtuous cycle’ that leads groups featuring generalized exchange to achieve productivity and maintain group members’ giving."